Parties Try to Field "Dream Candidates" in '98 Political Sleepwalk
WASHINGTON Driving along Interstate 85 from Concord to Charlotte, N.C. in his blue Chevrolet Suburban, Republican congressional candidate Robin Hayes interrupts his discourse on gun rights and less government as he passes the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Auto racing, he exclaims, "is the last family-oriented, clean sport left in the world."
It may be an overstatement, but national Republican campaigners say there is no overstating the seriousness of Hayes’ candidacy: he is now considered in the top tier of candidates the GOP plans to run with this year. The 51-year-old candidate began running even before the incumbent, Democratic Rep. W.G. "Bill" Hefner, unexpectedly announced his retirement in January.
Beneath Hayes’ folksy style he called one Texan a "boot scooter" is an heir to the founder of the Cannon Mills textile empire and a political veteran in a region that is increasingly becoming Republican. He is a former state House Majority Whip and former gubernatorial candidate, his conservatism is unambiguous, and his millionaire bank account can be tapped for his campaign.
The Democratic flipside of the "dream candidate" card is Shelley Berkley, who began her campaign for the Las Vegas, Nev. House seat on November 6, 1996, the day after Republican Rep. John Ensign barely won re-election.
An elected member of the University of Nevada Board of Regents and former state Assembly member, Berkley nonetheless had to prove to Democratic leaders she could raise enough money to be a serious challenger to a GOP incumbent.
By June, she raised $206,000, and party leaders sat up. "Then I had to demonstrate I was not a flash in the pan and I had to do it again," Berkley said. Six months later, her campaign contributions totaled $410,000.
As the party looked deeper, they saw in Berkley, 47, a credible candidate with a background in education, health, labor and business she grew up in a union household and is a former legal counsel for the Sands Hotel. Like Republican Hayes in North Carolina, Berkley’s odds in this "toss up" district improved when Ensign decided to leave the seat and run for the U.S. Senate.
But for all the planning, fundraising and importance that campaigns like these will carry in their communities, the results may have little impact on how the House of Representatives looks after the November election. The same can be said of hot races on the Senate side of the Capitol.
With the national electorate generally satisfied with incumbents in Congress, 1998 is expected to be a "status quo" election year in which both the House and Senate remain in Republican control, according to political watchers.
"It's going to be one of those elections where the politically active are very intense about it and ...we will have really very little interest by the electorate, because hey, people are not mad," said Barbara Sinclair, a political scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles.
A bland political forecast, however, does not mean the year will lack fierce contests as both parties fight to improve their numbers on Capitol Hill.
One of many fights will be in California. Republicans, for example, recently suffered a setback when Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., announced plans to give up his highly-contentious northern California seat to enter a contested GOP primary for the U.S. Senate office now held by Sen. Barbara Boxer. Riggs won his "toss-up" district in 1990, lost in 1992, then took it back in 1996.
Rep. Martin Frost, R-Texas, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, touted Rigg's retirement as an open door for what he called one of their "superstar candidates," Democratic state Sen. Mike Thompson.
But the Democrats also are reeling from unexpected resignations of long-time House veterans, like Hefner and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vic Fazio, D-Calif., whose departures increase the pressure on Democrats to hold on to the seats now in their hands.
"They have given up. They can see the writing on the wall that they are not going to take control and it’s no fun in the minority," said Mary Mead Crawford, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "They know what it was like to be in the majority and be in control of things and they liked that lifestyle."
Few expect the Democrats to win the 11 seats needed to retake control of the House, which they lost in 1994.
On the Senate side, Republicans are not likely to pick up 5 seats that would take them to 60 votes a "filibuster-proof" majority. But they must try to hold back Democrats who see this election year as a prelude to 2000, when Republicans will be more vulnerable with 19 GOP-held seats at stake.
With candidate filing deadlines still months away in many states, the battle plans by both parties are still taking shape. As of mid-January, there were 36 members leaving Congress. In the House, there are 31 open districts 17 Democratic seats and 14 Republican and in the Senate, five seats are being vacated by three Democrats and two Republicans.
Both parties will be challenged to increase the "intensity" among voters to turn out on election day, according to pollsters Ed Goeas, a Republican, and Celinda Lake, a Democrat, who recently completed a bipartisan voter survey.
Cooperation by Democrats and Republicans on issues like last summer’s balanced budget agreement wins public approval, but decreases the passion of voters whose loyalties are now equally split between the parties, the pollsters said.
"The voters clearly want both parties to work together and to get things done. In that context, it's hard for either party to really mobilize their base and draw a sharp distinction. And so this... battleground should go down to the wire in 1998," Lake said.
Added Goeas: "That affects fundraising of the parties, that affects fundraising for the different coalition groups, that affects candidate recruitment...Republicans have a marginal edge in terms of intensity today, but it does leave the margin very close."
Democrats need to win back senior citizens who began leaving the party before the 1996 election, and "soccer moms" who drifted away after supporting Clinton’s re-election. And Democrats must convince Hispanics who favor Democrats by high numbers but have low voting performance to get to the ballot boxes this year, according to Lake.
Goeas, the Republican pollster, conceded that the party’s lack of support among Hispanics the fastest growing segment of the population has been hurt even more in recent years, particularly after former Rep. Robert K. Dornan, R-Calif., blamed his 1996 election loss to Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez on non-citizen voters.
One area where there is no contest is money, where Republicans win hands down. The National Republican Senate Committee raised last year $33 million almost twice the amount raised by its Democratic counterpart. It was the same at the House campaign committees, with the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee taking in $28.6 million, twice what was raised by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, according to party officials.
Money will be crucial to get out the parties' messages in a year when voters seem bored and few national themes have emerged, party activists said. And this year’s session of Congress will be vital in shaping the themes on which Democrats and Republicans sell their candidates to the voters. National Republicans are discussing tax cuts and tax reforms, and President Clinton is appealing to his party’s more liberal base by talking about Medicare, Social Security and child care credits.
But congressional strategists believe the 1998 elections will be fought largely on a district-by-district, state-by-state basis.
In the Senate, the seats held by Boxer, D-Calif.; Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Co.; Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill.; Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y.; Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C.; and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wa. will be the most closely-watched incumbent races. The seats vacated by Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., and Sen. Wendell Ford, D-Ky., also are considered toss-up contests.
New York Republicans hope that a hotly contested Democratic primary featuring former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro and well-financed Rep. Charles Schumer will weaken the eventual nominee who faces D’Amato.
California Republicans, meanwhile, are struggling to find a candidate with spark. Before Riggs' late entry into the race, State Treasurer Matt Fong and millionaire businessman Darrell Issa were not exciting voters, according to state polls. The void has allowed Boxer to campaign aggressively, selling black boxer shorts with her campaign logo as part of a low-cost fundraising gimmick.
With all 435 House races on the ballot, Democrats are eyeing 40 to 50 districts where the seats are up for grabs or the Republican incumbents won by margins of less than 55 percent. Republicans, on the other hand, have set their sights on twice as many districts, with the hope that political prognosticators are wrong about this being a "status quo" election year.
The ideological split between Clinton's moderation which led to bipartisan legislative agreements, and the more liberal tendencies of House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, R-Mo., will work in favor of the GOP, said Crawford, the Republican spokeswoman.
"There's a great chasm dividing Democrats in the House now, and the closer we have gotten to 1998, the greater the chasm has grown," Crawford said. "As the [Democratic] leadership pushes far left, it puts moderates, who have essentially swing districts, in a bind."
But the Republicans also have their own internal fights, Democrats noted, pointing to the recent special California primary to fill the seat of the late Democratic Congressman Walter Holden Capps. In that open primary, much of the attention was on the clash between two Republicans over a late-term abortion procedure known by its critics as partial birth abortion.
The pro-life Republican, state Assemblyman Tom Bordonaro, finished in second place and will face Capps' widow, Democrat Lois Capps, in a March run-off.
Elsewhere, the early campaigns of both Hayes and Berkley demonstrate how local, not national issues, will play in the races.
In the south central North Carolina district where Hayes is running, the sitting congressman, Hefner, won re-election in 1996 to a 12th term by 55 percent of the vote. But Republicans carried the district in the last two presidential elections, and Hayes believes no strong Democrat will surface.
He campaigns for tobacco farmers who are feeling the attacks on the tobacco industry, supports the death penalty for major drug dealers, and believes solutions lie in people, not big government. During his 1996 gubernatorial campaign, which he lost by 13 percentage points, Hayes received the backing of the Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Assn.
In that run for office, he opposed Gov. Jim Hunt’s plan against guns in schools, claiming it was against the "nature" of the state and so strict and impractical, "firemen couldn't have come onto school property with an ax."
Traveling toward Charlotte for a fundraising meeting with a small group of investment bankers, Hayes mentions he began his day at 6:45 a.m. with a men’s bible study group. He believes he is in sync with his party.
In Nevada, beyond the millions of glittering lights on the Las Vegas strip, Berkley, the Democratic candidate, speaks from her upper-middle class home in a district with a 55 percent Democratic majority and where women voters outnumber men. With those numbers in her favor, she believes no strong Republican candidate will surface, despite serious threats from the GOP.
Voters in her district are comfortable, with a booming local economy. But Las Vegas’ exponential growth prompts concerns from senior citizens and the rising ethnic minority population about schools, services, and the environment.
She sidesteps questions about ideological spats among Democratic presidential wannabes in Washington and believes district voters want what she can deliver: "Somebody that knows their issues as much as she knows how to breathe." And for now, she believes that is all that is required to win.
© Copyright 1998 LEGI-SLATE News Service